Best Defense

Retired generals: Time for new body to coordinate and implement national policy

The United States must stop dialing 911 to an already stretched military to solve all problems.



By Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, U.S. Army (Ret.)
and Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, USAF (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnists

The United States must stop dialing 911 to an already stretched military to solve all problems. The nation needs a quarterback to organize the remaining muscle of a $4 trillion government, an army of nonprofits, the brainpower of universities, the engine of the private sector and networks of state and local governments that are now left untapped or underutilized in crises.

We need new thinking in leadership to affect whole-of-society solutions — those difficult moments when the U.S. government and private sector should come together to prevent crises, when possible, and to respond effectively, when necessary. We need leaders who maintain constant focus on our national security goals and develop a strategic vision to achieve them. Ultimately, we need the whole of government and society to function more efficiently and deliberately.

To do this, Congress and the White House must revise the 1947 National Security Act to create a National Security Council that establishes itself as the U.S. government’s prime strategist for domestic and international challenges. We envision a council with a fluid membership that cuts through the bureaucracy and makes the government work because its leaders have the statutory authority to require cooperation and the leadership abilities to execute their plans. To be clear, we are not calling for a larger NSC; instead, we seek a more effective organization that inspires whole-of-society solutions. Nor do we want the federal government to assume roles that clearly belong to state and local governments. However, when facing certain domestic challenges, this newly empowered NSC must coordinate closely with state and local officials to utilize the tremendous resources available from the federal government and society more broadly. The 14 active duty and retired military leaders of the Arizona State University Flag Officers Advisory Council have significant experience in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and issues at home. We have seen firsthand the urgent need to cut through turf wars and agency cultures to improve the United States’ strategic position. As the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act compelled the military to reform its command structure and work together, we must reimagine the National Security Council as a more effective interagency leader to make the whole of government responsive and better equipped for the increasingly complex threats the nation faces today.

The crisis in Syria begs for such an approach. We need a government organization that can create a strategy to bring the world together to end conflict while enhancing the United States’ strategic position in the Middle East. This approach must include a modern day Marshall Plan to rebuild the region and help the Syrians recover from a decade of conflict. Experts inside and outside government must be brought in to share their expertise, including from ASU and other like-minded universities that are focused on solving international conflict. In reality, our money and our military have been used far too often to attempt resolution of crises — in Syria, Russia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — rather than more readily employing all of our national power in support of a clear strategy. We believe a modernized NSC must develop that strategy and extensively coordinate the use of our national capabilities.

We do not see the existing shortfalls in the federal government as creation of either the Republican or Democratic parties. However, we do think the solution lies in the hands of our next administration — whatever affiliation the party — and we strongly believe the presidential candidates and Congress must take a serious look at reforming the NSC to tap into the whole of government and society. With a new authority and vision, an energized NSC must apply the full capabilities of our power — political, diplomatic, informational, economic, military, and societal — to safeguard vital U.S. interests and solve domestic challenges for decades to come.

Army Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Benjamin Freakley and Air Force Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Margaret Woodward are members of the Arizona State University Flag Officer Advisory Council, made up of more than a current and former flag and general officers from the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force who advise ASU President Michael Crow on complex matters of national significance.

Photo credit: Monika Kostera/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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